PhD defence: Fostering students’ systems thinking in secondary biology education

PhD defence of M.G.R. Gilissen


This dissertation describes how systems thinking can be fostered in secondary biology education. The research has shown that biological phenomena can be seen as systems and understood by modelling them according to the eight system characteristics: boundary, components, interactions, input and output, feedback, hierarchy, dynamics and emergence.

Based on literature input, a teacher team developed, tested and evaluated four lessons in two upper-secondary biology classes (15–16 years old students, n = 26, n = 19). Classroom observations, student products and interviews have led to guidelines to foster students’ systems thinking. By disseminating the guidelines to pre- (n = 39) and in-service teachers (n = 12) in the context of a workshop the viability of the guidelines was determined. The involved teachers indicated that the design guidelines assisted them to embed systems thinking in their lesson designs, which suggests that the guidelines are applicable for educational practitioners.

In total, five guidelines were described to foster students’ systems thinking in secondary biology education:

1) Introduce students to the term ‘system’ and the eight system characteristics in a well-known biological context;2) Start with a central complex problem/question;3) Let students visualize a complex biological problem using a systems model;4) Assist students in reasoning step-by-step within and between the levels of biological organization;5) Make students explicitly aware of the use of the system characteristics in various contexts.

As systems thinking assists students to reason about complex problems systematically, systems thinking is also valuable outside the biology classroom.

Start date and time
End date and time
Academiegebouw, Domplein 29 & online (link)
PhD candidate
M.G.R. Gilissen
Fostering students’ systems thinking in secondary biology education
PhD supervisor(s)
prof. dr. W.R. van Joolingen
dr. M.C.P.J. Knippels